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The Immortal Alexander the Great

The myth, the reality, his journey, his legacy


Alexander III of Macedonia (356-323 BC) owes his epithet ‘the Great’ to the enormous territory that he conquered: from Greece in the west to the river Indus in the east, the largest empire in antiquity. This is all the more remarkable when we recall that he subjugated this vast region within just eleven years, and that he was only twenty years of age when he came to power.

Someone who has conquered ‘the whole world’ by the age of thirty must possess superhuman powers. In the historiography, it is not always easy to distinguish reality from myth. From the outset, biographies of Alexander allude to his divine origin. It is not inconceivable that he contributed to these rumours himself. He instructed his court poet and historian Callisthenes to record the events as they occurred during his great expedition. These accounts are known to us only indirectly, from later sources. The literature depicts Alexander the Great as a hero, a brilliant general whose audacity, strategic insight and military strength were unequalled. But he also emerges as a megalomaniac alcoholic, a man with a unbridled temper; even some of those closest to him paid for it with their lives. In the Greek, Roman, and later Western literature, he has remained Alexander the Great. In the East, however, he has been known for several decades now as Alexander the Terrible.

The Macedonians

Alexander was the son of King Philip II of Macedonia, the region to the northeast of Greece. The Macedonians claimed descent from Macedon, the son of Zeus. They saw themselves as Greeks, but the Greeks thought them backward and uncouth – violent barbarians who did not dilute their wine.

Philip, who came to the throne in 360 BC, did much to promote Macedonia’s stature. He introduced Greek customs, patronized the arts, stimulated the economy, and organized an unprecedentedly strong professional army. In his reign, Macedonia became the greatest power in the region. He conquered the whole of Greece. He placed the previously autonomous Greek city-states under his rule in the Corinthian League. He married a series of princesses from the defeated territories for political motives, seeking to assure himself of their allegiance. Alexander’s mother, Princess Olympias of Epirus, was the fourth of his seven wives.

Alexander’s childhood

Alexander was born on 21 July 356 BC. He saw little of his father, who, as both king and general, was constantly away on some military campaign. Alexander stayed behind with his mother Olympias, who was surely happy with this arrangement, since she is said to have grown to hate her husband more and more with the passage of time.

Philip had arranged for his son to receive a Greek education: the boy’s physical training was in the hands of Leonidas, while his mind was entrusted to the celebrated philosopher Aristotle. As he grew up, his great examples were the Greek heroes Achilles and Heracles, whom he would frequently honour on his campaigns with sacrifices and games. Homer’s Iliad became the guiding motif in Alexander’s life. He also aspired to the Homeric ideal: to fight for personal success, honour and glory. In those days, the only real hero was a Homeric hero.

Even as a young boy, Alexander showed himself to be fearless. A great horse was offered for sale at the horse market. Known as Bucephalus (‘Ox-head’), this creature refused to allow anyone to mount it. It would rear up and kick out. Alexander had noticed that the horse was afraid of its own shadow. He turned it towards the sun and calmed it. After a while he successfully mounted and rode it. Philip was moved by the sight, and bought the horse for Alexander. Bucephalus served Alexander faithfully in the years that followed, until he was killed on the battlefield in 326 BC.

At eighteen years of age, Alexander was allowed to prove his worth in combat: he was placed in command of the army’s left flank at the decisive battle against Athens, at which he showed himself to be a highly capable leader in spite of his youth. Macedonia carried the day, and Philip became king of all Greece. The autonomy of the Greek city-states was no more.

If Alexander had expected his father to reward him for his courage, he was soon disillusioned. He was not given any part to play in the rest of Philip’s plans; instead, he was to serve as regent in Macedonia when his father was away fighting. This was the last thing he wanted, and the tensions between father and son grew thick in the air.

King Alexander

Not long afterwards, Philip was assassinated. It was rumoured that Olympias and Alexander were behind this assassination, but we cannot know whether there was any truth in such stories. In any case, Alexander was ready to ascend to the throne. There was an elder half-brother, from one of Philip's previous wives, but he was not eligible because he was seen as retarded. Alexander ensured that all the others who had any claim to the throne – Philip’s cousins – together with their families, were killed, leaving no opposition to his rule. This exemplifies Alexander’s ruthlessness, which spared nothing and no one, as he would demonstrate many more times after that. In 336 BC, at 20 years of age, Alexander was king of Macedonia and hegemon (leader) of the Corinthian League of Greek city-states. He surrounded himself with his father's most loyal generals and with his boyhood friends, all of whom he would appoint to high-ranking positions in his army. One of them was Hephaestion, Alexander’s best friend and lover.

When Philip died, the Greek city-states and the other territories he had subjugated saw an opportunity to regain their autonomy and rebelled. Alexander, who had inherited his father's strategic insight as well as the strongest army in the region, restored his power with considerable violence, and sometimes with diplomacy.

With every rebellion – and there were plenty – Alexander’s battle-readiness and strategic understanding proved so superior that all resistance was quickly crushed. He had gone through his trial by fire as king and as general, and had emerged triumphant. In 335 BC the rebellion in Thebes briefly appeared to be succeeding, but that too was put down. By way of punishment and to set a deterrent example to other cities, Thebes was razed to the ground. This strategy worked: Greece remained calm until Alexander's death in 323 BC.

The Asian campaign

According to the antique literature, Alexander was keen to emulate the exploits of gods and heroes. Besides his great role models Heracles and Achilles, he also drew inspiration from Dionysus, the god of wine. Dionysus, who played an important role in the everyday life of ordinary Greeks, was the son of Zeus and a Theban princess. He travelled round the world, introducing people everywhere to the cultivation of vines. He travelled as far as India. Everywhere he went, Dionysus − who was only a demigod – forged strong bonds with the peoples he encountered and established his cult. When he returned, he was given permission to live on Mount Olympus, which implied that the gods accepted him as one of them. Alexander appears to have been hoping for something similar.

Once peace had been restored to the Macedonian empire, Alexander could devote his attention to his grandiose plans. He wanted to subjugate the great Persian Empire. His father had already paved the way for him. Philip had persuaded the Greek city-states to support a campaign in Persian territory (and to supply troops), with the argument that he would liberate the original Greek coastal cities that the Persians had seized in the fifth century BC. Alexander took up the plan where his father had left off.

For this campaign, Alexander raised an army numbering some 48,000 soldiers, 16,000 auxiliary personnel, and a fleet of over a hundred warships and transport ships. He appointed Antipater as his regent and hegemon of the Corinthian League, and crossed the Hellespont (the Dardanelles) to Troy, where his great hero Achilles had died. Just outside Troy, he visited the graves of Achilles and of his dear friend Patroclus. In the temple of Athena near the grave hung weapons which were said to have belonged to Achilles. Alexander took the shield and spear and hung his own in their place. Then he considered himself ready for the battle against the Persians.

The first encounter was near the river Granicus. Although Alexander had taken only part of his army with him, his ingenious strategic decisions enabled him to devastate the gigantic Persian army, with its 20,000 horsemen and 20,000 (Greek!) mercenaries.

After this victory he continued further south, along the western and southern coast of present-day Turkey. His reputation had gone before him and struck terror into local leaders. Several cities surrendered even before Alexander arrived in the vicinity. It should be added that the former Greek cities were often rather lukewarm in their solidarity with the Persian king. Other cities rebelled, but soon gave up their resistance when faced by the vastly superior strength of the Macedonian army.

The constant victories not only generated revenue (the spoils of war), but also gave Alexander a continuous supply of new troops; the local boys were trained in Macedonian military techniques. In every city he subjugated, Alexander appointed a Greek administrator or satrap and left part of his garrison behind to retain his hold on power.

Ruler of Asia, son of Zeus?

Alexander's ambitions became clear when he arrived in Gordium, in the central mountains, in 333 BC. An ox-cart dedicated to Zeus stood there. It was said that anyone who could loosen the knot with which the cart’s staves were fastened – the Gordian knot – would rule over the whole of Asia. Alexander too found himself unable to untie this knot. He solved the problem, however, by slicing it in half with a mighty blow of his sword. He then declared that the knot had been loosened. Legend had it that anyone doubting the legitimacy of his claim was silenced by thunder and lightning − that is, by Zeus himself.

Alexander continued on his journey, towards Egypt. On the way, in Syria, the first battles took place with Darius III, the great king of Persia himself. Darius, who had naturally heard about Alexander's victories, had raised an impressive army to engage the Macedonian force at Issus. Darius initially seemed to be gaining the upper hand, but when the Macedonians defeated his bodyguards and threatened the king himself, he retreated. He did so not in cowardice, but probably because he feared that without him the Persian Empire would crumble. But this obviously put paid to any chance of a Persian victory. Alexander killed many of Darius’s troops. Yet he spared the king’s family, and even treated them with considerable courtesy, promising to find suitable matches for Darius’s daughters. Later on, he would marry one of them himself and give another to Hephaestion.

He let Darius go, since he was eager to press on to Egypt. This country appealed to Alexander for various reasons: it was wealthy, it enjoyed good trade relations, and belonged to the Persian Empire. Egypt surrendered to Alexander without a struggle. He managed to gain the people’s support by respecting their religion and traditions. He was soon crowned King of Egypt, with all the accompanying titles, such as Son of Ra.

In this period, Alexander developed divine aspirations. This became clear after his visit to the oracle of Zeus-Amun in the Egyptian desert. He returned with the message that he had been accepted as a true son of Zeus. From then on, stories started circulating about his divine descent: Zeus – appearing in the form of a serpent − had supposedly fathered him on his mother Olympias. Alexander’s stature continued to grow. More and more frequently he expressed a desire to be worshipped as a god, something that did not strike the Egyptians or the Persians as improper, but the Greeks saw it as blasphemy.

Lord of Asia

Indefatigable, Alexander continued on his journey, towards the east. He sometimes encountered resistance, but the Macedonian army dealt swiftly with each new opponent. In every region he subjugated, he appointed new Persian rulers who were favourably inclined to him. To cement his power, Alexander founded new cities here and there, calling almost all of them Alexandria and populating them with Greek and Macedonian army units. He encouraged his troops to marry local women to consolidate the Greek-Macedonian hegemony.

In the meantime, Darius had rebuilt his army. The decisive battle took place at Gaugamela on I October 331 BC. In spite of its huge size, the Persian army was defeated, again because of Alexander’s shrewd strategy. Darius fled, but some time later (in the summer of 330 BC) he was assassinated by one of his former satraps.

Alexander was hailed by his army as Lord of Asia. The victory was celebrated exuberantly in the vicinity of Persepolis, the ‘capital’ of the Persian Empire. Alexander’s soldiers plundered the city, and Alexander set fire to the palace of Xerxes, the former king of Persia. Some say this was a drunken impulse, while according to others it was a calculated act of vengeance: Xerxes had burned the Acropolis in Athens to the ground in the Graeco-Persian wars in the fifth century BC.


Alexander had no intention of resting on his laurels and returning home. He wanted to continue his journey, to India. But by now, a mood of unrest was spreading among his troops, who were battle-weary. What is more, the generals were irritated by what they saw as the king’s divine pretensions. For instance, Alexander had decreed that everyone must prostrate himself in the dust before approaching him. This was a traditional Persian ritual known as proskynesis, which Alexander had introduced to mollify the Persians. But the Macedonians saw it as blasphemy: a mortal allowing himself to be worshipped as a god. Alexander had growing difficulties retaining the support of his own countrymen as well as the Persians, all the more so because he rebuffed all criticism. During one of the regular drinking bouts enjoyed by Alexander and his staff, a heated exchange flared up between Alexander and Cleitus, one of his loyal commanders and friends. Cleitus had saved Alexander’s life at the Battle of Granicus. In response, the king seized a spear in his drunken rage and stabbed Cleitus to death.

In the spring of 327 BC, Alexander provoked surprise by marrying. He had previously lived with a Persian noblewoman and fathered a child on her, but he had never married her. His bride was Roxana, a Bactrian princess, described by some as the most beautiful girl in the whole of Asia. This too aroused disapproval among his Macedonian inner circle; if a child was born, it would not be of pure Macedonian blood.


In India, Alexander encountered resistance among his own men. The troops refused to carry on towards the east, whatever rewards they were promised. Alexander capitulated. He led his army back, straight across the forbidding Gedrosian desert. According to the accounts, it was a hellish journey, and Alexander shared the harsh conditions of his men. Water was extremely scarce, and the blistering heat made matters far worse. Whenever a little water was found, it was taken to Alexander. But since his men had nothing to drink, he would not drink either. This attitude fuelled the legend. The troops eventually emerged from the desert at the end of 325 BC. It seemed that the worst hardships were now over. But Alexander had not yet told his men about the plans he had forged for the next campaign.

The demise of Alexander and his empire

The new plan was to attack Arabia from Babylon on the river Euphrates. By 323 BC he had made all his preparations. An enormous harbour, big enough to accommodate 1,000 warships, had been built in Babylon, and an invasion force was ready to strike. But it was not to be: Alexander died on 13 June, 323 BC, just short of his 33rd birthday.

The circumstances surrounding his death are shrouded in mystery. It seems that Alexander lost consciousness during one of his drinking orgies, and could not be revived. According to some sources, he was struck by a raging fever so violent that it caused his death. Another story relates that he was poisoned.

Alexander had failed to arrange a matter of great importance: the succession. There was no legitimate heir or unchallenged successor. His eldest son, Heracles, was illegitimate: Alexander had never married his mother, a Persian princess. His first wife, Roxana, was still expecting her first child when Alexander died. Although she gave birth to a boy in August, there was little recognition for his authority. All the leading generals demanded a share of the power. A period of chaos and conflict ensued, and the struggle for Alexander’s legacy lasted until the year 301. As rapidly as it had been built up, Alexander’s vast empire crumbled again. It disintegrated into diverse kingdoms. Macedonia no longer played any significant role on the world stage.

Influence and inspiration

Alexander’s influence on the world was without parallel. He brought prosperity to all parts of his empire. He founded cities, built harbours, and opened trade routes. He patronized the arts, philosophy, and science; his retinue included biologists, historians, and geologists, who were all encouraged to record what they saw along the way. Since he founded cities in diverse regions and left Greek and Macedonian troops there, the indigenous population came into contact with Greek customs. Conversely, the soldiers he left behind adopted some of the local traditions. It was the beginning of Hellenism: the dissemination of Greek culture and its intermingling with numerous other cultures. The Gandhara Buddhas are fine examples of Graeco-Buddhist sculpture. The reciprocal influences endured for centuries after Alexander’s death.

Down the centuries, and around the world, Alexander has remained a source of inspiration for writers and artists. The Romans greatly admired him. His courage, his triumphs, and the staggering numbers of those he defeated appealed to their imagination. Much was published about Alexander in the Roman era, including several entire series of books, such as the ten-volume series by Quintus Curtius Rufus, dating from the first century AD. The so-called ‘Alexander Romance’ − probably written in the third century AD – is a stirring, partly fictionalized account of Alexander’s reign. In later centuries this text was rewritten and expanded in several languages and regions, often adapted to suit local tastes and the age. In the Middle Ages, for instance, the stories were not only suffused with Christian piety, but peppered with all kinds of fabrications. In illuminated manuscripts produced in the early Middle Ages, Alexander is depicted in a kind of diving-bell, heading for the bottom of the sea. In the late Middle Ages, the emphasis shifts to his courtly graces and chivalry. He was one of the most popular figures in the Italian Renaissance. Scenes from his life inspired decorations in the palace interiors of princes and aristocrats.

Several European rulers saw Alexander as their example. One of his greatest admirers was Louis XIV of France (1638-1715). The Sun King had divine aspirations similar to those of Alexander. Indeed, he proclaimed himself ‘the new Alexander’, and instructed Charles Le Brun to make a series of Alexander paintings for the Louvre. Since the French court determined fashions throughout Europe, Alexander enjoyed a surge of renewed popularity. In Italy, Spain, Austria and Germany, palaces were furnished with paintings depicting scenes from Alexander’s life. In Persian literature, Alexander often plays a prominent role as the good king Iskander. He was much loved by Islamic princes from Persia and India. The appreciation for Alexander penetrated Russian culture with the advent of the Byzantine tradition; the Byzantine monarchs saw themselves as the direct descendants of the Macedonian king. The rulers of the first Russian state (from the tenth to the thirteenth century) not only adopted the Orthodox religion, but also adopted Alexander as ‘their’ hero.

In the eighteenth century, Catherine the Great (ruled 1762-1796) drew inspiration from Alexander. She named her grandson after him and raised him with stories of Alexander’s exploits. Her political goals were similar to Alexander’s: she too had the ambition of building a vast empire. It was during her reign that an absolute monarchy was firmly established in Russia.

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